My Igbo heritage, my Christian faith

Photo: Hanniel Yakubu, Unsplash. Photo: Hanniel Yakubu, Unsplash.

February is Black History Month, honoring our triumphs, struggles and cultural heritage.

Carter G. Woodson, the “father of Black history,” said: “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

It is in this spirit that I am proud to share my African heritage. I have been thinking deeply about my heritage after taking part by Zoom in the funeral rites for my father, Chief Pius Onye, in Nigeria.

I have been thinking about how my Christian faith and my cultural heritage both have shaped who I am.

I believe it is not a contradiction to appreciate the parts of my heritage that are not Christian. But I must be clear what I believe when my cultural background and my Christian faith are in conflict.

My dad, who passed away on Aug. 14, 2021, was buried in front of his home in Ihiala, Nigeria, on Jan. 6, 2022.
My family’s ethnicity is Igbo. The final resting place for an Igbo man is his ancestral village.

The Igbo bury their dead among the living, within the family’s land, because the Igbo believe in the afterlife. According to this belief, a loved one can only reincarnate if correct burial traditions are adhered to.

As a Christian, I too believe in life after death, but not in the way that those who believe in reincarnation do.
I believe what Hebrews 9:27 teaches: that “it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment.”
I also believe Jesus Christ’s death was a one-time event, a sacrifice that took care of sins forever: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).

My father, who was born in 1929, became a Christian while in middle school. As a follower of Jesus, he looked forward to a new heaven, a new earth and a new Jerusalem, where God will wipe away every tear and death will be no more (Revelation 21:1-4).

Although the idea of reincarnation is repugnant to me, I accept the need to follow Igbo burial traditions. Igbo culture is important to me, and I respect the wishes of others.

The Igbo funeral service is an expression of strong community ties. My hope for my family’s ancestral village is that its people will experience Christ-centered community.

According to Igbo tradition, without the rites of passage performed during a ceremony called ikwa ozu, or “celebrating the dead,” the deceased will be forbidden to take his or her rightful place among the ancestors.

I pondered what it would mean to be excluded from one’s place among the ancestors. This is unscriptural and frivolous to me. I believe my father’s place is secure in the memory of his descendants and in the kingdom of heaven.

As I participated by Zoom in the funeral rites, I spoke when needed. I watched the wake-night ceremony — with musicians and dancers, food and drink — as it continued till morning.

No matter how old we are when our parents die, we feel grief and pain. But I did not expect the depth of grief I would feel that night in my bedroom in Los Angeles as I saw on my computer screen my dad’s body reposed in a box.
The worst pain came at the graveside. Not being physically present was hard. It hurt to hear my mom cry with a loud voice. It was like a knife piercing my heart. One of my siblings called a friend to come to my house to comfort me.
The next day there were Christian rituals: a church thanksgiving, where worshipers brought livestock and food as offerings. After this service, a second burial ceremony begins.

It is customary for the eldest daughter to entertain the village the day after the body has been laid to rest. This duty fell to my sister. She prepared our father’s favorite food for the villagers to eat from dawn to dusk. According to traditional Igbo belief, consuming this food ensures that the deceased will not go hungry in the next life.

In Igbo culture, togetherness is the key to power. As a Christian, my father believed in the kind of power Jesus Christ demonstrated — the power of peace. Some of his last words, spoken to my elder sister, were powerful: “Please, live in peace, share peace, be at peace.”

These are words of wisdom for any culture and any faith. My dad spoke them as a Christian and as an Igbo man. I share them as a woman who also embraces both of these identities — as one who loves Jesus and my African heritage.

My dad was a man of peace, an agent of reconciliation. Today I echo his last words: Share peace. Live in peace.

Anthonia Onye

Anthonia Onye is regional minister for Southern California for Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference.

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